In this excerpt from the last chapter of Painless Poker, I am playing at my old romping grounds, Lucky Chances, for the first time in years.
In between folds, my thoughts kept drifting back to seat seven. I’d get an urge to say something across the table to Mick, and just as fast, the impulse vanished, and all I wanted was to play poker. A dozen oscillations later, I hit a peaceful patch. I stopped speculating about Mick’s fall from glory, and he became just another obstacle between me and more money.
I played a hand against Andy where he opened from the hijack for $80, and I called on the button with ace-king of spades. Everyone else was out.
Let’s go to the flop, oh baby!
I flopped big. Flush draw and two overs. Andy bet $120 into the $190 pot. I called. The turn card was a spade. I made my flush. Andy checked in a way that I read as a give-up check. So I checked behind kind of fast. On the river, Andy checked, and I made a small bet, trying to squeeze a drop of milk from his uncooperative udders. Andy flashed two red jacks and mucked.
“Take it. Take it,” Andy said. “I know you have the flush. I read you like a book.”
“And don’t forget,” I said, “I’m now available in ebook.”
Howard looked down at me from atop his two cushions and long neck. “Alex said something about book number three being almost done?”
“It is. In fact I am working on the ending as we speak.”
“Are you still coaching?”
“Some. Not much. I’m into food now. Did you know there are 850 species of figs? But we only eat a few. Black Mission and Calimyrna mostly.”
“I’ve missed you, Tommy,” said Howard.
Andy got all animated. “You miss him? How can you miss him? When he opens his mouth, nothing but shit comes out!”
“Amen to that, brother,” Mick said.
Andy sprung to life, eyes speeding back and forth between me and Mick, ending with a penetrating stare into Mick’s unyielding silver lenses.
“You know Tommy?”
“We’ve met,” Mick said coolly.
My next big blind I got ace-king again. Three players folded and the action was on Mick. Mick looked at his cards, looked at my blind, and bet a quick $80 with four black chips.
The other players folded. And then there were two.
I called the $60 more. The flop came with no big cards, giving me no pair and no draw, and no interest in pretending otherwise. I checked and Mick bet fast and I folded fast. Mick turned over his cards, but I didn’t bother to look at them.
Andy scolded Mick. “Don’t show him a bluff, you dummy. He might start calling us down.”
“I kind of doubt it,” Mick said. “He’s not what you’d call a reader. He can’t even tell when one of the suckers who paid him for coaching thinks he got totally screwed.”
“Are you talking about you?” Andy said. “Did you pay Tommy for lessons?”
This is Andy’s idea of a really good time.
Mick pulled his hood off fast. His hair was short, way shorter than before. A buzz cut. His skull had a good shape to it.
“No way!” Mick said. “I was force-fed, at the clinic.”
“At the what?” Andy said.
And off came the sunglasses. Mick aimed his pale blue eyes at Andy. Then at me for an uncomfortable three seconds.
“Never mind,” Mick said to Andy. “Just forget I said anything.”
Well, that was surely not going to happen.
Ten hands later I got pocket queens on my small blind. Mick opened for $80 and everyone folded to me. I made it $260. The big blind folded and Mick called the $180 more. We were heads up going into the flop. Mick had his sunglasses and hood back on. I palmed four white chips.
The flop came Q-7-4, rainbow. I had the nuts with a set of queens. I dropped my chips into play, thus deploying a bit of sophistostrategy I latched onto long ago: Seeing as I have to bet the flop many times with crap, I’ll be damned if I’m going to check when I finally flop huge.
“$400 is the bet,” said the dealer.
Mick called quickly, using four white chips as well.
What could get us all-in?
He could have 77 or 44, or a straight draw.
Or AA or KK. How could I get those hands to commit?
Just watch out for straights. 65 is your prime danger, plus some gutshots if he started with a one-gapper.
The turn card was a deuce. I still had the nuts. So I bet out again.
“$800 is the bet.”
Mick did the tiniest hitch. During which he changed his mind. I saw the whole thing. Then he called my $800 bet, using two stacks of $20 chips, slid out slowly.
What did he change his mind from? Had Mick’s first instinct been to raise? Or to fold?
He was going to fold.
How do you know?
Because if his first instinct was to raise, then the deuce must have improved his hand, and the only thing it could improve him to is two pair.
Or possibly trip deuces if he floated the flop with 22.
True. The point is that if he did start with Q2, 72, 42, or 22, then a 2 on the turn wouldn’t make him hitch, because that’s what he’d be hoping for.
Here’s what really happened. The thought in Mick’s mind when he called the flop was the classic, “If I hit the turn, I’ve got him. If I miss the turn and he bets again, the math will make me fold.”
Mick hitched because he was prepared to fold if he missed, and he did miss. He missed what he was aiming for. But he also picked up more outs, enough to turn a fold into a call. It just took him a split second to see it. Hence the hitch before he called.
You’re right. The story is complete. So, what does he have?
The stacks were right for him to call on the flop with a gutshot, planning to fold the turn if he missed. Then the deuce gave him four more outs, so he called the turn.
And with this board, Q-7-4-2, there is only one holding for which that is true: 53.
Correct. He has 53.
The future was determined. If an ace or six came on the river, I would check, Mick would bet his straight, and I would fold my three queens and think hey, good for him, he got there.
The river was a six. I checked, Mick bet $1,000, and I folded, as scripted.
Good for you, Mick. Not that it matters, but I would have played it the same, except for the hitch.
“What was that thing you said about a clinic?” Oh boy. Here comes Andy again, stoking Mick. “I’d say you’re the only one running a clinic here. We should call you Tommyknocker.”
“It’s too easy.” Mick was savoring the stacking of my chips. “I called with nothing just to rob him on the river.”
That stung, briefly. See, my poker ego does not like it when I appear to be predictable and boring, especially right after I just made one of the least boring plays of my life. My poker ego wanted to expose Mick’s lie and tell everyone the real story about what just happened.
But my bankroll wanted me to guard those secrets. My bankroll knows that its survival requires that I create a strategic advantage. In this game, most of my edge comes from faking predictability. I appear dull, then I play ball. My poker ego doesn’t like the first part, because I look like a chump. But my poker ego derives much pleasure from the second part—exploiting the image—so it has learned to suffer humiliation, silently, patiently.